from USA Today
Youth aging out of the foster care system wonder who to turn to. Adoption can give them the joy of family.
When I talk to older youth who are aging out of the foster care system, I can tell their minds are swirling.
“Where will I live? Can I go to college? How will I support myself? Who will help me if I can’t pay my rent on time or if I get a speeding ticket? Where will I go for holidays?” they ask.
That last question gets to the heart of what so many older youth in our foster care system need and want: a permanent and loving family, a place they can always return to, and parents who can help them navigate all of life’s questions.
About 20,000 young people in foster care age out of the system each year — at 18 in many states and at 21 in others. Though some social supports are still available, many of them are abruptly on their own and have little other assistance in transitioning to adulthood.
Research shows that older youth who leave foster care without a permanent and emotional connection to a family are more likely than their peers to have poor outcomes and become dependent on social services. Many drop out of school, experience homelessness, become parents too soon or have difficulty landing a job or staying employed. Getting adopted can change everything for them.
Mary Lee, now 34 and a law school graduate, was adopted a week before her 18th birthday. She had been in foster care since age 12 and says she never felt that she belonged. Like many teens, Mary was told she was “unadoptable.”
No child, especially a teenager, should ever have to hear that word.
“I’m an adult, married, with a career, but I still need my family today,” she says. “My dad walked me down the aisle. My sister was my maid of honor.”
A 2011 study that followed young people from Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois for eight years as they transitioned out of foster care found that at ages 25 and 26, about one in five of the young adults had no high school diploma or GED. Fewer than one in 10 had completed a two-year or four-year degree. Fewer than half were employed. They were much more likely than their peers in the general population to experience financial hardship. Two in three young women and two in five young men had received food stamps.
You never outgrow the need for family. But sadly, the older kids are, the harder it is to find them one.
At AdoptUSKids we’ve seen that youth older than 13 wait much longer than younger children to be adopted — if they ever are. About four in 10 of the youth listed on our national website (which means they are available for adoption) are 15- to 18-years-old. But only 17% of the youth we’ve helped place in adoptive homes since 2002 were in that age range.
Closing that gap is the focus of our National Adoption Month campaign this year.
Mentoring a child
I’ve met many people who are hesitant to adopt teens. They worry that older youth coming out of the foster care system will be troubled and difficult to raise.
I tell people that while some teens have experienced hardship, through no fault of their own, and come out of troubled homes, they are all full of potential, just like any other youth on the verge of young adulthood. State programs and adoption agencies support parents and their teens post-adoption and often provide services such as mental health and medical care. What teens leaving the foster care system need are compassionate parents who can adapt and offer stability, support and a lifetime commitment.
A growing cohort of people could step in to help by welcoming teens into their homes and hearts. People in their 40s, 50s and 60s have the life experience to give teens the support they need to become independent. Perhaps, like adoptive mom Stacey Padova, these prospective parents may not mind missing out on diapers and sleepless nights, preferring to help a child learn to drive, apply to college, rent a first apartment and navigate adulthood.
“We really realized we were beyond the baby stage,” says Padova, who with her husband and teen daughter brought an 18-year-old young man into her family. “A teen fit into our lifestyle. We were looking to mentor, and not mold, a child.”
Stacey’s son, Jose, now 21, graduated high school and is living at home. This holiday season he’ll have the gift he says he always wanted: “A mother and a father who sit down at the dinner table with the kids and discuss the day.”
Kathy Ledesma directs AdoptUSKids, which raises awareness about the need for foster and adoptive families and helps social service organizations find families for waiting children. The project is run by the Adoption Exchange Association and funded by the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.